Once upon a time, in an analogue world long ago and far away, we would come in from a cold, brutal world of hunting and gathering, and focus our attention on a wooden cabinet with multiple drawers filled with cards about books. Pre-printed cards, often with typewritten or handwritten additions, alphabetically arranged, would send you to all parts of the library in search of the author or title or subject. This wooden cabinet was very much a cabinet of mysteries and wonders, and as you gently grasped the brass latch to pull the drawer open and toward you, there was a satisfying sound of a hefty drawer sliding on a smooth track, then tilting just slightly forward for better viewing, promising knowledge, revelation, connection. Reassuring and familiar, the opened drawer released the faintest fragrance of cardboard and ink, mulched with the greasy smudges from the thousands of other readers who had previously perused that drawer. To open the card catalog and search for your book — and maybe splaying your fingers back and forth down the full length of the stacked cards, thrilling to the visceral sensation of rubbing sensitive fingertips against crisp cardboard edges — was to connect with the world of readers well before you arrived on the scene, and offered you 3x5 cards on which your own fingerprints would be added for the readers ahead of you, in perpetuity.
At least in perpetuity until the card catalog was thrown on the trash heap of modern civilization, buried in the midden of the pre-digital age, jettisoned along with cathode TV, cassette tapes and phone booths. Who wept when 8-track faltered, when Betamax bit the dust, when Tetris teetered into oblivion? Who weeps for the demise of the card catalog?
But who needs analogue wood and analogue cardboard and analogue ink when you have the Cloud? All soft and gauzy — merely condensed water vapor floating above the atmosphere — an indistinct and billowing mass holding our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor and our cards, printed and handwritten. The cloud can hold an infinite number of online data bases and keyword researches, no doubt about it, but those wooden cabinet card catalogs gave us a 19th-century taxonomic control of our knowledge, made us think all that information was somehow containable and cross-referenced in neat little drawers. Maybe, just maybe, it was an illusion of control, that somehow we humans flipping through the A-Z drawers could corral and contain all that stuff, whereas now with the cloud-based filing system, there is no big picture whatsoever. There is no control. There is no illusion.
When I walked into a library and saw the card catalog at the center — like the sacred altar at the center of the mother church, or in place of the holy ark of the covenant holding the Torah Scrolls in the synagogue, or the Mihrab in the mosque directing our eyes toward the Ka’aba in Mecca — then I knew I had brought my humanity and humility to the foot of the divine. So I weep when I see that the cards from the card catalog now appear on library reference desks as scrap paper. Scrap paper!? One might as well shred the Declaration of Independence and use the strips as confetti for your next digital party.
Speaking of loss, let’s send a RIP to good handwriting too, once a key skill required for librarians. Mr. Dewey himself gave instructions on what kind of cursive should be used by cataloguers on handwritten cards, commenting that “legibility is the main consideration. Skillful writers should acquire reasonable speed without sacrificing legibility.” When I write notes to mail to my young adult grandsons (Write. Notes. Mail.), I have to use block printing for they cannot read my cursive, and it’s not because of indecipherable handwriting. They. Cannot. Read. Cursive. At. All!
But back to our beloved missing-in-action card catalog. I miss the circulation envelopes in the books too. I miss the circulation cards with stamped dates due. I miss reading the names of other patrons who’d checked this book out before me. I know, I know, there are other serious issues out there to contend with — the melting polar ice caps, the proliferation of an opiated culture, the contents of Stormy’s NDA — but damn it, I have to stand for something or there will be nothing left to stand for. I feel the entire card catalog cabinet has fallen on me on its way out the door and onto the garbage dump. It's fallen, and I can't get up.
Of course, I am not a complete dinosaur, still lamenting that moment when I crawled from the sea and aching for my watery past. I understand the appeal and convenience of an online search for the right book. I can sit in my boxers or briefs and sip my cappuccino in the wee hours of the morning, fingering my way through the cloud. But a digital interface with a list of clouded books is a pale substitute for the tactile, hands-on engagement of your five digits with the drawer and the card and the book itself.
Card catalogs are now relegated to home decorating. What a celebration of these cabinets we find on Pinterest and Esty for they make great display areas for our collectibles, our plants, our cutlery, our scrapbooking materials! My god, people, card catalogs are for cards and books, not bottles of liquor.
Take a look at the bookish interiors of local restaurant-bar Room 901 in St. Petersburg. Stylish for sure, though there's not much in evidence whether these patrons could tell a novel from a doorknob.
To eat and drink surrounded by paperback books eviscerated and spread-eagled against the wall, with neon-lit liquor bottles in the drawers of the decommissioned card catalog, likely housing the deadly and poisonous absinthe, makes for a rather ghoulish evening among the carcasses of our literary heritage.
Ben Wiley is a retired professor of film and literature at St. Petersburg College. He also was on staff in the Study Abroad Office at University of South Florida as statewide Director of the Florida Consortium/University of Cambridge (UK) International Summer Schools. His interests are in film, books, theatre, travel, literacy programs, kayaking Florida rivers. Contact him here.